Putting the spotlight on the contributions and achievements of women in the history of the automotive industry.
In honor of women everywhere, we are taking a look at how some of many truly exceptional women were at the forefront of innovation and achievements in the automotive world from its early history onwards. You may think: what do women have to do with the automotive industry and cars. Isn’t that a guy thing? This article will prove you couldn’t be more wrong.
Women finding solutions to automotive problems
Many women helped in different ways make titans of the automotive industry; companies like Mercedes Benz, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Chrysler. Not all of them possessed mechanical or engineering qualifications. They simply used their common sense to find a solution to a widespread problems. In doing so they created a device which is still used today.
Bertha Benz 1888
If ever there was a highly determined woman of initiative in the automotive world, that would be Bertha Benz to whom we owe so much. Can you imagine modern auto industry without Mercedes-Benz?! As her husband Karl Benz failed to market the car properly. Bertha Benz had undertaken the very first long-distance petroleum-powered privately-owned car journey in 1888. Her performance brought attention to their company and subsequently sold their very first models. Bertha also wanted to test out the motorwagen on the road and garner as much publicity as possible. She also demonstrated her tech-savviness – completing often-necessary small repairs. She figured out motorwagen could benefit from additional (third) gear for hilly terrain as her sons often had to push the car in such situations. This successfully completed long-distance trip proved the worth and reliability of their invention, but only after Bertha herself suggested substantial updates to the patent. Updates that no one would have figured were needed hadn’t she completed the trip in the first place. Not only did she complete the world’s first long-distance car voyage, but she also executed the world’s first thorough car test which lead to the aforementioned revisions to the Benz patent.
Margaret Wilcox inventer of the First car heater, 1893
Born in 1838 in US, Chicago, Margaret A. Wilcox is a mechanical engineer who invented the first car heater. Major inventions have not been made just by men but by women as well. In 1893, was invented by a female named Margaret Wilcox. She was patented for car heater on Nov 28, 1893. This invention acted as “two shots in an arrow”! It made driving easy in foggy and frigid weather by keeping windows mist free and also maintained car interior at chosen temperature according to our need making the driving experience more cumfortable and safer.
Mary Anderson inventer of the windshield wiper blades, 1902
She produced the first working model and was granted a patent for it in 1903. Mary didn’t work in the automotive business or even near, she was a real estate developer and rancher. However that didn’t stop her from having a genious idea In 1902 when observing a trolley driver having a tough time seeing through the windshield on a sleet-filled day. Thus she starts working on what we know as the first windshield wiper blades. Many solutions had been attempted before but Mary Anderson produced the first working model using a lever which activated a spring-loaded arm to move back and forth across the windshield via a counterweight system. Her design was the most effective and for that, she was granted a patent in 1903.
DOROTHY LEVITT Inventer of the concept of rear view mirror, 1911
Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt was the first British woman racing driver, she holds the world’s first water speed record and the women’s world land speed record. She was a pioneer of female independence and female motoring, and taught Queen Alexandra and the royal princesses how to drive. Dorothy is also a journalist and an author. In her book “The Woman and the Car” she recommended that women should “carry a little hand-mirror in a convenient place when driving Not for aesthetic purposes but in order to see behind while driving in traffic”, thus inventing the rear view mirror before it was introduced by manufacturers in 1914.
Florence Lawrence inventer of "Auto-signaling arms", predecessors of modern-day turn & stop signals, 1914
“A car to me is something that is almost human,” Florence Lawrence; Hollywood starlet and first movie star. Besides being the first film actor to be named publicly, she was also an inventor just like her mother Charlotte Bridgwood. Florence invented the predecessors of modern-day turn signals. She developed a mechanical signaling arm that, with the press of a button, raised or lowered a flag on the car’s rear bumper in order to tell other drivers which way a car was going to turn. After that, Lawrence devised a rudimentary brake signal that worked on the same principle: when a driver pressed the brakes, a “STOP” sign flipped up from the back bumper. These enormously important inventions are, obviously–today, in every car on the road. Can you imagine driving without electrical turn signals and brake lights ? Roads will be pure chaos!
Charlotte Bridgwood inventor of the first electrical windshield wipers, 1917
Manual windshield wipers were already around for a few years however no man thought of how to upgrade them. Once again it’s a woman who figured that out. Charlotte Bridgwood, president of the ‘Bridgwood Manufacturing Company’ in New York, took the original manual design, first introduced by Mary Anderson and further developed windshield wipers. She devised the first electrically-operated automatic wipers. Charlotte named its invention the ‘Storm Windshield Cleaner’. She used rollers instead of blades and was patented in 1917. Few years later it became widely adopted and has being fitted in cars, including Cadillacs.
JUNE MCCARROL inventer of the road separation line, 1917
She didn’t exactly influence cars, but she sure did influence transportation as we know it today. She is the only one who thought about road separation line. At that time, even simple things as lines down the middle of the road were things that needed to be invented. June Mccarrol is responsible for painting the first line separators. McCarroll got the idea after one particularly terrible accident in 1917. She was driving her Ford Model T when one large truck came her way so she had to skid off the road in order to evade the oncoming truck. Immediately after that incident, June thought of the idea, but Riverside Country Board of Supervisors didn’t share her enthusiasm so she decided to take matters into her own hands and personally painted the white stripe on today’s Indio Boulevard, in 1917. By 1924, California was the first state with mandatory center lines establishing it as automotive regulations pioneering leader. A status it still boasts today. And we have a female nurse to thank for, of all people.
Helene Rother First woman automotive designer, General Motors, 1948
Helene had experienced designing jewelry and hat pins for Parisian high class society, but it was in America where she fulfilled her true potential. She quickly became Detroit’s first female car designer working in General Motor’s interior designing staff. After that, she opened up her own design studio Helene Rother Associates, before she subsequently joined Nash Automobiles a year later, in 1948. Helene opened the doors for many other women who followed in her footsteps and changed automotive history:
- Jane Van Alstyne
- Dagmar Arnold
- Gere Cavanaugh
- Marjorie Ford
- Ruth Glennie
- Jeanette Krebs
- Jeanette Linder
- Sandra Longyear
- Helene Pollins
- Peggy Sauer
- Sue Vanderbuilt.
Mimi Vandermolen designed rotary dials, ergonomic seats…, 1970
Mimi Vandermolen joined the Ford Motor Company’s Design Studio in 1970 and contributed to Ford Mustang II’s design. Promoted to Design Specialist in 1979, she led the interior design of the mid-eighties game-changing Taurus. If you remember the car, you’ll also remember it wasn’t revolutionary on the outside alone. Mimi decided to finally discard the impractical straight dashboard and position all the controls at driver’s reach. She also introduced the rotary dials, ergonomic seats, and optional digital instrument panel. Just like Dorothée Pullinger decades before, Mimi Vandermolen also emphasized on female drivers.
Courtney Caldwell, Road&Travel, Marketing, 1989
Caldwell worked all her life on showing automakers that the women’s market was integral to the survival and evolution of the industry. In 1989, Cladwell started the first female automotive publication The publication “Road & Travel Magazine”, was a one-stop resource for drivers to make informed decisions about buying, leasing, selling and even driving. The magazine is still around nowadays, and it is in fact the largest and oldest publication to target the women’s automotive market. Eventually, Ford Motor Company brought Caldwell aboard to guide them in marketing cars for women
Michelle Christensen Designed the famous Honda NSX, 2012
We’ve talked about the women behind the designs of many popular vehicles but we can’t talk about the modern era without name dropping Michelle Christensen. There’s no doubt that Michelle Christensen knows cars. She developed and designed none other than the famous Honda NSX in addition to many of Honda’s Type-R performance variants. You can see it in the way her designs aerodynamics, but also the driving experience. According to Automotive News, Christensen signed on with Honda after Acura unveiled its NSX concept at the 2012 Detroit show. When she did: became first woman to lead a supercar design team.
Mary Barra First woman CEO of General Motors, 2014
On January 2014, Mary Barra made history when she stepped up to be the first woman in history to become CEO of a major automobile company the General Motors Company. Having begun working for GM at 18 years old in 1980, Mary brings many years of experience, Eventually she rose as manager of the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant. In 2011 she made it as Executive Vice President of Global Product Development where she was responsible for their designs and their automobile platforms. Since her early days in GM she has been committed to moving the company forward. Today, she faces a new challenge as GM comes under fire for recalls related to a faulty ignition switch. However, her achievements cannot be denied.
Gladys Mae West recognized in 2018 for her contribution to the development of the GPS,
Wen Gladys West started her career as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956, she likely had no idea that her work would impact the world for decades to come. The role played by West was crucial in the development of the GPS and the measurement of satellite data. We can also Thank Gladys for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the earth and the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the global positioning system or GPS that we find in our cars.
These female inventors clearly demonstrates that women have the power to achieve anything. Technology and development are waiting for new and creative ideas. So, all the ladies out there don’t let the world wait any longer, just brighten the world with your intelligence and potency.
Chirine DHOUIB Marketing & Communications Manager, OneTech group